Uptight fogies who once feared rock & roll would lead to the fiery demise of civilization will find their paranoia vindicated in Rob Reid’s comic novel Year Zero, though for much different reasons than they could have imagined. Extraterrestrial forces are plotting to annihilate Earth because of our pop music, which turns out to be the best in the universe. It’s so good, in fact, that zillions of intergalactic beings have been pirating our tunes since our talented little blue world was discovered via an errant Welcome Back, Kotter theme-song broadcast in 1977. (That became Year Zero, when the aliens reset their entire calendar based on the renaissance triggered by human music.) Decades later, these advanced societies now owe so much money in copyright-infringement fines that a few nefarious sects are planning to simply erase the debt by scrubbing us from the solar system.
Unfortunately for Earth, the hero poised between us and extinction is a not-very-good entertainment lawyer. His name is Nick Carter, and he is alerted to the threat by a pair of conscientious outer-spacians because they mistake him for the guy from Backstreet Boys (see sidebar on page 76) — not because of his grasp of copyright law.
Reid, who in real life founded the company that became the online music-streaming service Rhapsody, gets a lot of mileage out of the extreme contract language that causes the music-related crisis, like ownership rights protected ”throughout the universe in perpetuity” and mandatory $150,000 fines per stolen song. As refined citizens of the universe, the aliens are required to honor the traditions of all artists, and our tradition just happens to be: Pay. Us. Now.
If music labels could be persuaded to allow free off-world sharing, it would spare countless life-forms from bankruptcy and prevent our planet from becoming an orbiting cinder. But earthling foibles aren’t the direct target of this novel’s humor, which somewhat saps Year Zero of its satiric strength. Music, greed, artists’ rights, and piracy are ripe subjects for spoofing, but Reid focuses instead on the loopy alien creatures populating his narrative. If you look hard, you can see a little of us in them, such as the ultra-bland race called ”pluhhhs,” who are brain-fried in the presence of fame (think Beliebers or Twihards), and a giant, fire-breathing snail lawman from planet Fiffywhumpy who tries to incinerate trespassers on his world, like a slimier, more extreme version of a certain obsessively anti-immigrant Arizona sheriff.
Year Zero frequently veers into the familiar tone and territory of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to which this first-time novelist is hugely indebted. Dramatic tension often wafts away amid all the whimsy, but Reid’s strength is his ability to fuse pop culture with the otherworldly in the service of a laugh. (Some angry alien laborers are described as acting like they’d ”just heard their kid sister was at the junior high school dance with R. Kelly.”) Year Zero may not be very deep, but that’s not the end of the world. B